I'm enjoying Anil Seth's book, "Being You: A New Science of Consciousness." Consciousness is fascinating. Without it, we are nothing. Without it, we know nothing. Without it, we experience nothing.
So, yeah, consciousness is pretty damn important.
Here's passages from the Prologue. They offer a good feel for the approach Seth takes in his book, which is based on a solid grasp of modern neuroscience.
The book jacket says: "Anil Seth is a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and codirector of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science."
This book is about the neuroscience of consciousness: the attempt to understand how the inner universe of subjective experience relates to, and can be explained in terms of, biological and physical processes unfolding in brains and bodies.
...A science of consciousness is nothing less than an account of who we are, of what it is to be me, or to be you, and of why there is anything it is like to "be" at all.
The story I will tell is a personal view, shaped over many years of research, contemplation, and conversation. The way I see it, consciousness won't be "solved" in the same way that the human genome was decoded or the reality of climate change established.
Nor will its mysteries suddenly yield to a single eureka-like insight -- a pleasant but usually inaccurate myth about how scientific understanding progresses.
For me, a science of consciousness should explain how the various properties of consciousness depend on, and relate to, the operations of the neuronal wetware inside our heads.
The goal of consciousness science should not be -- at least not primarily -- to explain why consciousness happens to be part of the universe in the first place. Nor should it be to understand how the brain works in all its complexity, while sweeping the mystery of consciousness away under the carpet.
What I hope to show you is that by accounting for properties of consciousness, in terms of mechanisms in brains and bodies, the deep metaphysical whys and hows of consciousness become, little by little, less mysterious.
I use the word "wetware" to underline that brains are not computers made of meat. They are chemical machines as much as they are electrical networks.
Every brain that has ever existed has been part of a living body, embedded in and interacting with its environment -- an environment which in many cases contains other embodied brains. Explaining the properties of consciousness in terms of biophysical mechanisms requires understanding brains -- and conscious minds -- as embodied and embedded systems.
In the end, I want to leave you with a new conception of the self -- that aspect of consciousness which for each of us is probably the most meaningful.
An influential tradition, dating back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, held that nonhuman animals lacked conscious selfhood because they did not have rational minds to guide their behavior. They were "beast machines": flesh automatons without the ability to reflect on their own existence.
I don't agree. In my view, consciousness has more to do with being alive than with being intelligent. We are conscious selves precisely because we are beast machines.
I will make the case that the experiences of being you, or of being me, emerge from the way the brain predicts and controls the internal state of the body. The essence of selfhood is neither a rational mind nor an immaterial soul.
It is a deeply embodied biological process, a process that underpins the simple feeling of being alive that is the basis for all our experiences of self, indeed for any conscious experience at all. Being you is literally about your body.
...With each new advance in our understanding comes a new sense of wonder, and a new ability to see ourselves as less apart from, and more a part of, the rest of nature.
Our conscious experiences are part of nature just as our bodies are, just as our world is. And when life ends, consciousness will end too. When I think about this, I am transported back to my experience -- my non-experience -- of anesthesia.
To its oblivion, perhaps comforting, but oblivion nonetheless.
The novelist Julian Barnes, in his meditation on mortality, put it perfectly. When the end of consciousness comes, there is nothing -- really nothing -- to be frightened of.